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Often referred to casually as “pink eye”, conjunctivitis is the swelling or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin, transparent layer of tissue that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye. Causes may or may not be infectious.

close up of healthy and irritated red eyes

Causes & risk factors

There are three main types of conjunctivitis: allergic, infectious and chemical. The cause of conjunctivitis varies depending on the type.

Allergic conjunctivitis

  • Allergic conjunctivitis occurs more commonly among people who already have seasonal allergies. They develop it when they come into contact with a substance that triggers an allergic reaction in their eyes.
  • Giant papillary conjunctivitis is a type of allergic conjunctivitis caused by the chronic presence of a foreign body in the eye. People who wear hard or rigid contact lenses, wear soft contact lenses that are not replaced frequently, have an exposed suture on the surface of the eye or have a prosthetic eye are more likely to develop this form of conjunctivitis.

Infectious conjunctivitis

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis is an infection most often caused by staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria from your own skin or respiratory system. Insects, physical contact with other people, poor hygiene (touching the eye with unclean hands), or using contaminated eye makeup and facial lotions can also cause the infection. Sharing makeup and wearing contact lenses that are not your own or are improperly cleaned can also cause bacterial conjunctivitis.
  • Viral conjunctivitis is most commonly caused by contagious viruses associated with the common cold. It can develop through exposure to the coughing or sneezing of someone with an upper respiratory tract infection. Viral conjunctivitis can also occur as the virus spreads along the body’s own mucous membranes, which connect the lungs, throat, nose, tear ducts and conjunctiva. Since the tears drain into the nasal passageway, forceful nose blowing can cause a virus to move from your respiratory system to your eyes.
  • Ophthalmia neonatorum is a severe form of bacterial conjunctivitis that occurs in newborn babies. This is a serious condition that could lead to permanent eye damage if it is not treated immediately. Ophthalmia neonatorum occurs when an infant is exposed to chlamydia or gonorrhea while passing through the birth canal. For several years, U.S. delivery rooms have applied antibiotic ointment to babies’ eyes as a standard prophylactic treatment.

Chemical conjunctivitis

Chemical Conjunctivitis can be caused by irritants like air pollution, chlorine in swimming pools, and exposure to noxious chemicals.

Symptoms

Symptoms vary with the causes discussed above. Allergic symptoms include clear, watery discharge along with mild redness. Itching, sometimes severe, may or may not occur. With bacterial infections, there is typically minimal pain but a possibly dramatic appearance with moderate redness and almost always a yellow/green discharge, sometimes extreme. This discharge can also make the eyelids red and swollen and can attach itself to the eyelashes for a crusty appearance.

Bacterial infections can be more severe in patients that wear contact lenses. There is also a risk of a bacterial corneal ulcer developing in contact lens wearers which would include severe pain and light sensitivity. Viral infections can also cause moderate redness and are usually painful. The pain is typically a sandy, gritty feel like something may be in the eye. There can also be a moderate to severe light sensitivity.

Prevention

With so many causes, there is no one preventive measure. Early diagnosis and treatment will help prevent the condition from becoming worse. Avoiding allergy triggers as much as possible also helps. Frequent hand washing and keeping hands away from eyes also can make a difference, even when no problems are present.

See us at Seitz Eye Care to treat your “pink eye” symptoms today!